A couple of years ago I visited Livingstone together with some friends. In the centre of the main road of the town is a line of beautiful mango trees beneath one of which an elderly lady sat in rags. She sat, surrounded by plastic bottles, with her bony shoulders and withered breasts showing through the tears of her brown tattered dress. There she sat, day and night, whenever we passed by, and having been brought up to act when faced with suffering, we decided to do something to help her. We went to the local PEP and bought her some t-shirts and chetengas, a roast chicken, some water and a few other things that escape my mind at the moment. We crossed the road, headed for the mango tree, bearing our gifts, but as we approached we heard her mumble the word ‘no’ over and over as she shook her head. We stumbled and hesitated a brief moment, but so certain of the goodness of our actions, we forced our generosity upon her, leaving our gifts at her bare feet. The next morning the gifts were gone, and she still sat under the mango tree, surrounded by plastic bottles, with her bony shoulders and withered breasts showing through the tears of her brown tattered dress.
I recently read a novel called ‘Gifts’ by Nuruddin Farah. The story is set in Mogadishu in the early 1990’s when Somalia was ravaged by war and famine from a severe drought, and received much financial support from other countries. The story revolves around the theme of receiving gifts and the question of dignity:
“Last week the world ran and Africa starved. […] Last week, while the non-starving peoples of the world ran, taking part in the self-perpetuating media exercises of TV performances, Africa waited in the wings, out of the camera’s reach, with an empty bowl in hand, seeking alms, hoping that generous donations would come from the governments and peoples of the runners. […] I feel shy, I am tongue-tied. Like a child to whom an adult has given a gift, who smiles timidly and takes it, and whose mother says, “Say thank you to Uncle,” I too say, thank you one, thank you all, Uncles Sam, Sung, and Al-Mohamed too.” Farah.
This question of a continent, of a nation, of a human being receiving and at the same time maintaining dignity is a pertinent question which is raised in this satirical song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5opSsAYQ3k
But I don’t mean to bring the notion of generosity into question. I call out with Dostoyevsky’s character Alyosha Karamozov:
“We are all responsible for everything and for everyone before everyone, but I more than any other!”
I merely wish to point out the complexity of the phenomenon of ‘giving’.
But how then does one make a difference in the face of suffering? How are we to respond to responsibility for the Other? I do not know. And I certainly do not believe in simple generalized answers. I believe that it is a question that we must ask ourselves in every encounter with the other, again and again, in situated specific circumstances. And I believe in bravery – in daring to act, even with the risk of failure.
One place that certainly makes an admirable difference is Mechanics for Africa, where we have the privilege of renting a house and having our base during our time in Zambia. They train mechanics as well as running a workshop – providing an education, providing jobs, providing a future, providing dignity.